Seemingly always on the road honing his craft, and with successive albums getting heavier, Kris Barras and his band have taken audiences with him. On a Thursday night in Bury St Edmunds, MetalTalk’s Paul Monkhouse saw blues fans mixing happily with Metalheads as Kris and his band continue to grow in stature.
The Apex show was Kris’ first time at the venue. “It’s a very special place,” Kris said. “It’s been awesome,” he says of the tour so far. “I’m really happy to see so many people turning out, considering it’s January and cost of living and all that kind of stuff. It’s just been amazing, and it just feels like everyone’s having such a good time with us, and it’s just been great to get out and see everyone.”
The tour marks a change in lineup, with Kelpie McKenzie moving on and Fraser Kerslake seamlessly taking over bass duties. “Kelpie was such an important part of the family,” Kris said. “We knew that he hadn’t been happy in the UK for a while, and we knew the only reason he was staying around was the band. He did a bit of travelling when we had a bit of downtime in September, October last year. We had a last-minute festival come in Poland [Rawa Blues Festival]. It’s a big arena gig. I did it a few years ago; an absolutely amazing place. Kelpie was away in Hawaii at the time travelling, so we knew Fraser locally played with Josiah [J. Manning] and a few other function bands.
“He got involved, and my expectations were to get someone that we knew could play well and get through the gig. I wasn’t expecting them to be Kelpie on the gig, someone putting on a great performance, because it’s a big act to step in at short notice. One quick rehearsal, but I just couldn’t believe it. He was amazing. He was charging all over the stage like he had been playing with us for years. I had it in the back of my head that if Kelpie ever does leave, this guy is the perfect replacement.”
Kris says that a couple of months later, Kelpie had decided to leave the UK and thus leave the band. “It was obviously very, very sad, but we knew Fraser would be the perfect replacement. I got straight on the phone and got it done, and he’s been unbelievable, Absolutely unbelievable. As you saw yourself the other night, it’s like we’ve been playing together for years.”
Having seen Kris play live over the years, I’ve witnessed the move from pub gigs to opening for Beth Hart at Hammersmith, then up to larger audiences at Download. The music has got heavier, which Kris says is a natural progression for him. “I never really wanted to be confined to just the blues genre,” he says. “I’m a massive blues fan, but never really considered myself a blues artist because there’s just a lot more to me than that. The blues stuff is just one small part of me as a musician.
“In my teens, I played in Metal bands. I’ve played in a jazz band, so I’ve done lots of different styles. As a musician and an artist, I don’t really like to be pigeonholed. I love blues, and maybe some of the songs that I’ve written in the past have a blues element to it. But I’m just a guitar player and singer. I just apply a blanket rock term over it.
“You know, one of my favourite artists, someone who I’ve loved since I was a kid and I’ve got to know and hang out with, is Richie Kotzen. He started off playing Poison and then got to Mr Big and his own stuff. He’ll have an instrumental guitar album, then a jazz fusion thing or like Greg Howe. Then he will have a heavy album, then a funky album, and then he has a bluesy album. He’s got Winery Dogs. I’m nowhere near as tight as that guy. But he’s just a musician and an artist and likes playing lots of different styles. I’m the same in that sense while just not being quite as good.”
Death Valley Paradise is their biggest album to date, hitting the Top 30 album chart. It’s heavier than the earlier music, and Kris says that people who discovered him earlier in his career have enjoyed the journey. The age range at the shows is wider now, too.
“That’s something that’s only happened since we’ve started getting heavier,” Kris says. “We’ve been getting the younger people come in, and it’s wicked. There are Slayer t-shirts and Shinedown, Alter Bridge, as well as BB King and Fender t-shirts. I think our tour with Black Stone Cherry helped a lot. If you look at their audience, that’s quite a wide range. You got everything from younger kids that are into heavier stuff, maybe kind of Kerrang, Metal Hammer type kids, right the way up to older rock fans that remember when they saw Led Zeppelin in 1972. I think it feels like we’re kind of hitting on the same thing on a smaller scale.”
Looking back at his earlier life as an MMA fighter, Kris says he gets a similar feeling before gigs as he would before a fight. “That’s just adrenaline,” he says. “A lot of people don’t understand how their body works, or they’re not used to experiencing that kind of thing. They call it nerves. But in the fight game, you’ve got to learn not to let that stuff bother you because of the fight or flight response. I’ve seen a lot of people who have coached an absolute monster in the gym that, come the fight, just completely freeze up because they haven’t had to deal with that kind of adrenaline surge. I had years of getting used to that. I definitely get a little feeling like half an hour before, and it’s similar to the fight game in the sense I spent a lot of the day before a fight feeling like I’m not ready. I don’t feel like I want to fight tonight. Then I start to warm up, and then bam. I’m ready to go.
“It’s a similar thing with a band. Some days I’m tired. I’m not feeling tonight, and I just don’t know how I’m going to do it. All of a sudden I start my warm-up routine and I’m absolutely buzzing.”
Their show at London’s Royal Albert Hall was an amazing experience. “Is there a more iconic venue that you can play in the UK? Probably not. Is there a more iconic venue you can play in the world? For us to piggyback on that one was nuts. We had a moment in sound check. I remember just looking at Josiah and being like what are we doing here? I think it’s because the ceiling is so high, it just feels vast. I’ve played Wembley Arena which is a much bigger place in terms of capacity and footprint. But when you’re in the Albert Hall, the people at the back aren’t actually that far away from you, but it’s just the fact it’s so vast that you feel almost vulnerable.
“I remember in soundcheck, standing there feeling like this is nuts. I haven’t felt like that in a long, long time. That was pretty cool. But once the gig rolled around, it was great. I think we had quite a lot of our fans there. I think it was quite a big crossover between KBB fans and BSC fans. I know we definitely had people in the crowd that knew who we were and knew our songs, singing along, and it just felt amazing.”
One of the highlights of Thursday’s show was Watching Over Me. It’s a song that is incredibly personal for Kris, and it’s such a wonderful, moving tribute to his dad. I can just imagine him being so proud of Kris, walking out on the stage of the Albert Hall.
“He was a great, great guy,” Kris says. “It’s a shame he never got to see it. He would have loved it, being my number one fan. But I often look back, and I think, would I have done this if he was still alive? Because I do feel like his death changed, a lot of things. I was 26, 27, when he died, still finding my feet in the world. It just changes the way you see things when you experience something like that. When I eventually got around to wanting to write some songs and do a band again, I was very much doing it with his memory in mind. Almost like I’m not doing it for him, I was doing it for myself, kind of like, in the back of my mind.
“So, I often wonder if I didn’t have that catalyst. Obviously, I wouldn’t wish my dad dead, but what I’m saying is if he was alive, I might not have ended up going down this path. I was playing in a cover band with him, and I was comfortable just doing cover band stuff alongside the fight thing. Maybe my life would have carried along that same path. Experiencing his death made me question everything. Made me look at everything, made me view the world differently and made me make decisions differently. So maybe I wouldn’t have ever done this if he had stuck around.”
Another of the highlights from Thursday’s show was Wake Me When It’s Over because I think that just keys into how so many of us felt … Chaos. It is a very personal song for Kris, with the struggles he was having at one point. My Parade, which I said in the review, is really a war song. It’s a declaration, standing there and you’re with us, or you’re against this sort of song. How how does Kris feel about the whole writing process of the album?
“It was probably the only positive thing to come out of the pandemic for me,” Kris says. “I actually had time to sit down and write songs and teamed up with a few different songwriters in the States, something that I’d never done before, co-writing like that. And that was a great experience for me. I think they really helped bring out the best in me and put me on some different paths. I really spent a lot of time working on the songs, writing, and rewriting again. Really honing the sound, and I probably wouldn’t have had the time to do that if it wasn’t for the pandemic. So it’s the one positive thing that I can take away from it.”
Writing for the new album is underway. “We’re writing on the tour bus,” Kris says. “Josiah and I have this top lounge. We’ve set up a little recording station here, so we’ve been recording and getting some demo writing done. For us, I think the main thing is that we had to get this, get this tour done. That makes it sound like it’s a chore. It’s not a chore at all, but the focus has been on doing this tour. We’ve got a bunch of festivals booked for the summer that we’re headlining. And how well this has done will kind of dictate what we do next, the next moves and what promoters want to do and stuff. So it’s getting this done, looking to the summer festivals that we are headlining and pretty much once this tour is done, I think we’re going to start firming up some plans a bit further down the line, maybe for early next year.”
The band has seamlessly grown into larger venues, and they have been working on their performance too. “I really want to elevate the show on this tour,” Kris says. “I wanted to deliver a good quality show. Obviously, I’m a frontman, but a guitar-playing frontman, so I’m very, very limited in what I can do. I’m stuck behind the mic stand a lot of the time unless I have guitar solos. We made the decision to do some stuff where I’m not actually playing guitar, so I’m just on the mic.
“I wasn’t sure how it was gonna go down, if people think it’s a bit weird. But it’s gone down really, really well, and it seems to be maybe something that was missing from live shows before. Maybe it probably wouldn’t have worked on previous album songs, but I think on the new album, the rockier stuff, having someone strut around with a microphone kind of works.
“But yeah, it’s been good. I’ve been enjoying getting out there and seeing people’s faces up close.”